Hustle Points: Building a Culture of Winning (Small Things pt II)

I played college basketball under the tutelage of one of the best college coaches of the ’00s (2005 consensus Coach of the Year), Bruce Weber. Over the course of his career he has won a ton of games and has had numerous post-season appearances (including the National Championship game in 2005). Coach Weber knows how to build a winning culture. In my current role, part of my task is to help our organization build, maintain, and accelerate a winning culture. In thinking about the building blocks for doing so, I think back to my time playing for Coach Weber.

The fundamentals for building a winning culture, you may not be shocked to hear, starts with the small things!

Weber’s first head coaching gig was a complete program reboot. There had been a culture of winning, but that culture had been eroded, rotted, and ultimately lost.

The first thing Weber had to do was build back the culture. Before stepping foot onto the court, he had to identify who were his leaders on the team. He identified a core group of 3-4 guys and told them, essentially, “Look, we are in rebuilding mode. And I’m going to rebuild this program from the ground up the right way. I need your commitment to doing 3 things:

  1. always do the right thing,
  2. be on time,
  3. play hard.”

These guys weren’t necessarily the most athletic. But they bought into and believed in this mindset. They became the core of the team (distributed leadership). And in many ways, getting this buy-in was Weber’s first victory.

This was step one to building a winning culture: winning hearts and minds and getting people to accept your vision and your leadership. 

The next step was coaching the team to success. As a leader, if you declare a vision and don’t support it with a plan for execution, you’re nothing more than a hype man. So what is your plan for executing? What is the outcome you’re working towards and your work-backwards plan for achieving that outcome?

One of the most visible ways that Weber reinforced his simple three rules – do the right thing, be on time, play hard – was with our practice jerseys. Written across the butt of our practice shorts were giant white letters that spelled out “PLAY HARD”. That was his vision – a hard playing team. How did he get us to execute? The examples are many, but the most poignant illustration is in Weber’s “Hustle Drills” and “Play Hard Chart”.

We obviously would work tirelessly on skills – ball handling, passing, shooting, defending, rebounding, etc. But we had an additional stat line that we were measured against that included pass deflections, blocked shots, lose ball recoveries, taking a charge, steals. For Weber and his staff these small acts of hustle were measurable ways of tracking our hustle as a team. It’s how we could chart and inspect just how hard we were playing.

Hustle Drills included timed drills where we would practice exactly these things: diving after loose balls, practicing techniques and stances for how to play passing lanes, being in weak-side help positions to be able to step over and take a charge from a penetrating opponent. In other words, he didn’t just tell us to go out and play hard, he gave us a framework, a system of measuring against stated goals, and, crucially, taught us the elemental steps for how to execute for success in this game within the game.

This was step two.

Weber was building his culture of winning by getting his team to focus on the acts that were the building blocks for his brand of winning. His brand consisted of a defensive-minded team that would grind down opponents, out-hustle opponents, beat opponents mentally. So the Hustle Drills and Play Hard Chart – which were a consistent part of our every day – was the manifestation of this larger philosophy and plan. Get it: there was a larger plan and Play Hard and Hustle Drill were means of executing against, measuring, and holding accountable for progress towards achieving a long term objective.


There were numerous other components that were fundamental to successfully rebuilding SIU into a mid-major powerhouse program. Concepts like “Share the juices”, “Fly a jet”, “Be a student of the game”, “Be accountable” (see below an example of taking Extreme Ownership and Accountability on the national stage) and more.
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As I work as part of a team that is building towards an IPO, a team that is at an important inflection point in our journey as an organization, these concepts are quite timely. What are the small things we’re doing as leaders to build (and maintain) a winning culture?

The tricky part about topics of “winning” and “culture” and “leadership” is that there are multiple layers that are often hard to capture and repeat. For example, arguably what is more important than his success as a coach has been his success as a teacher (in fact, his background is in education). If you are a coach (sales leader, executive, entrepreneur), winning is paramount. But winning isn’t black or white. If the only thing you do as a coach, leader or executive is win – if you neglect the other human elements such as mentoring, teaching, caring, etc. – true and long-lasting success is likely to allude you.

An important measure of a coach’s success beyond Ws and Ls is the percentage of his players and staff who go on to achieve great things once they leave the locker room. If your people can go on to succeed once they are no longer on your team, that’s the mark of a great coach or leader. Coach Weber has a healthy list of these types of wins, too.

This was step three: building trusting long-lasting relationships that gives continuity and longevity to a well-executed plan. In the world of business you might call these customer references or having a highly valuable network of connections. You don’t earn long-lasting relationships, customer references, or powerful networks unless you’re doing right by people.

Where else do you see lessons that can be gleaned and applied to building a successful culture – one with a winning mind-set – in your workplace or every day life?


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